Archive for November 2008

Listening for History

November 13, 2008

A few days ago, I went to a local convenience store to buy ice cream. While I was paying, I noticed that, when the cash register drawer was opened, a little speaker on the machine made the sound of an old-fashioned cash register drawer, with a bell and everything. This struck me as funny and then got me thinking. How many things in life now do we use that artificially produce the sound of their non-electronic predecessors?

The most obvious, perhaps, is the cell phone that rings like an old rotary phone, with a bell instead of a chirping, trilling tone. I shake my head whenever I hear someone’s cell phone emit this sound, because in a way, it totally defeats the purpose–to have an electronic device make the sound of something it’s not. Not to mention that, usually, when this choice is set, the person who chose it has the ring volume so loud that everyone within a quarter-mile vicinity knows they’re getting “an incoming”.

Being a musician, of course I thought about synthesizers that reproduce all the instruments of the orchestra. I’ve had the privilege of seeing this field evolve, so that now, there’s even a keyboard that can be used to play parts with a human orchestra if players of those instruments aren’t available. Some musicians see this as a threat–after all, if a machine can now do what they can for less money and without the possibility of errors or fatigue or the need for health insurance and retirement benefits, pretty soon they’ll be completely irrelevant. Not really, in my opinion. The quality and realism of these synthesizers blows my mind. But there will never be a replacement for live music, played from the heart. No machine can replicate that.

Another overlooked sound, because it’s so obvious, is the doorbell. Lots of them go “ding-dong,” or play “Westminster Chimes”. But most of them have no bells anywhere in them. Instead, they’re wires hooked up to a receiver that has been programmed to play digital versions of those sounds.

Many churches still “chime the hour” and play hymns on a “carillon” at noon and five. When my husband and I lived in our first apartment, there was a church across the street that did this. I loved it because I always knew what time it was without having to look at my watch. But there was no carillon–just a pre-recorded selection that rotated through a series of hymns, and I’d be willing to bet that the clock didn’t have a bell, either.

It’s not just doorbells with no bells, either. We have clocks in our house that tick, even though there’s nothing mechanical inside that says they have to. In college, my father gave me a talking alarm clock that crowed like a rooster. We’re programmed to associate roosters with the crack of dawn, but as more of us move away from a life that includes the real feathery thing, we get our cockadoodle-doo’s from tiny speakers instead.

My brother Mike was a linguist in the Navy, and he came home from one overseas trip with an alarm clock that played the Muslim call to prayer. This clock was even louder than my rooster, and every time I heard it, I couldn’t help but envision teeming streets in some city, speakers atop poles at the corners, the sheer volume of sound from all that humanity overwhelming the senses. There’s nothing like it in the U.S.

I’ve even been to someone’s house where, when you knocked on the door, the sound of a big dog barking greeted you. This person had no dog. But if you just came to the door and didn’t know this, you’d think he did. Until, of course, you paid attention enough to notice that the barking never moved anywhere, like an excited dog running around.

There is concern among blind people about the new hybrid cars. They are very quiet when the gas engine isn’t engaged, and if we can’t hear them coming when we’re crossing streets, it could potentially be pretty dangerous. So there are proposals to have the companies install some sound-making device to alert pedestrians when one of these “quiet cars” is approaching. So we may one day have cars that don’t sound like cars but, like that cash register that started this whole mental excursion, are programmed to play the sound we’ve grown so accustomed to hearing that it’s practically hard-wired into our DNA now.

As our world becomes more and more mechanized, what sounds are we losing? How many kids holding a carton of milk have actually heard a cow moo in the flesh? How many people have listened to the racket made by a chicken laying an egg? (They sound so joyful and yet so desperately sore at the same time–how do they do that!)

We live on a busy road, and the traffic is pretty constant. But surrounded as we are by woods, since the road passes through the Pine Bush Preserve, we still get all the birds, tree-rustlings, wind, insects and other wonderful sounds of nature. Personally, I don’t think I would want to live anywhere I couldn’t hear those things, though being in a city would solve a lot of transportation problems for me as a non-driver.

I use technology every day to compose. I have a musical keyboard hooked up to this computer, and I use software to produce all the sounds of the instruments in my pieces. But I try to make the results as realistic as possible. In a piece for four guitars, for instance, I’ve been known to make each one start a tiny fraction of a second after the other three, so they’re not quite exactly synchronized. The computer is great because it will mathematically correct what’s been recorded, if you want it to, so it is perfectly aligned in rhythm. But human beings, even the most rhythmically gifted among us, aren’t this precise.

My greatest compliment comes when someone hearing something I’ve created wants to know who played all those instruments and gets this incredulous look when they learn they all came out of a little office on the first floor of my house. To me, there’s nothing worse than “canned” music–music that sounds so artificial that it’s like aural Cheez Whiz.

And when I’ve pushed enough buttons and crunched enough numbers to almost drive me crazy, I can go into the next room, sit down at a totally non-electric keyboard, pause to get my bearings, and then immerse myself in the sound of an instrument that has been bringing pleasure and expression to millions for the past three hundred years. The construction has changed as materials have advanced, but the basic structure and sound haven’t changed beyond recognition.

Even if we lose electricity and I can’t use the computer, the piano is always waiting for me.

Potent Words: Need Versus Want

November 9, 2008

How many times have you gone to the grocery store and, as you’re walking down the aisles and picking things off the shelves, said, “Oh, I need that”? If you’ve got kids, how many times have they held up some goody or other in your grocery excursion and declared, “We need more of these, Mom”?

Chances are, the item you’ve picked or the one your child is waving in front of you has come from a company that has done their marketing research. They’ve covered the packaging with bright colors and big letters. And, especially here in America, they’ve probably “enhanced” or “improved” it somehow—usually by making the box hold more servings, touting “claims” about new ingredients that boost its cleaning power or flavor, anything as long as it will catch your attention and make you think about buying it.

The problem is, too often we don’t. The trouble doesn’t start with thinking, either. It starts with a four-letter word—well, two of them, really: “need” and “want”.

What do we really need? We need to eat and drink, keep ourselves relatively clean, fairly healthy, dressed in clothes that are seasonally appropriate and cover our parts that we find it socially unacceptable to leave out for public display (at least that’s the usual definition of clothing).

If you take that grocery trip, think about this. There are thousands of items there, and a majority can be considered luxury items. Do we really “need” laundry detergent that supposedly smells like “fresh breeze”? What about seven varieties of apple, twelve different formulations of pudding mix, or twenty-three different kinds of soup? Do our kids need cereal shaped like little bears, crackers in the shape of jungle animals, or yogurt with multicolored sprinkles they can mix into it? Do we “need” a beer can that turns blue to tell you it’s still cold? And if we do, why? (For the beer, didn’t we used to use our hands to figure this out?)

We’ve gotten really confused and think we need things we don’t, and what we should be saying instead is, “I want that”.

Advertising plays a big part in this shift. We’re constantly exposed to messages from companies saying that, in order to be happy, beautiful, healthy, satisfied, all we “need” is their product and we’ll magically change.

We have drugs for things we didn’t even call diseases before, or simply accepted as part of life. We are told to eat certain foods in certain amounts because of what they’ll protect us from “getting” later—“DRINK COFFEE TO REDUCE YOUR RISK OF PARKINSON’S!”, or “EAT CARROTS TO IMPROVE EYESIGHT!” or “GET YOUR FIBER IN YOUR YOGURT!”. What ever happened to eating vegetables because they were in season or because, wondrous thought, they taste good?

But I digress—someone better come take this soapbox!

We should all be a little clearer on what we “need”—the things required for basic life support—and what we want—the stuff that we can do without but choose to have because it gives us pleasure.

I never “need” chocolate. I can live without it. But there are times when I would enjoy the taste of it. At those times, I “want” it.

My husband and I try to make this distinction whenever we go grocery shopping. As a result, we’ve cut our spending on groceries dramatically over the past few years. The best way to cure yourself of “wanting” is to go without for a while. The things you used to insist you “needed”—vanilla chai mix, cookies, corn or potato chips, frozen waffles—won’t be in the house to tempt you.

We’re not immune, of course. I’m not advocating being so Spartan in what you buy that you feel constantly deprived. But next time you’ve got that “value-pack” of gourmet salad dressings or whatever you’re holding in your hand and hear yourself say, “I need this,” stop and ask.

“Wait a minute. Do I really? Or is it just that I want it?”

There are many things I want, far fewer I truly need.

Potent Words: Surviving Versus Living

November 8, 2008

If you’re “making a living,” that’s a good thing, right? The bills (mostly) get paid on time, there’s food on the table, warm clothes for winter and a roof overhead. Maybe there are good schools for the kids and good health care for grandparents.

But what if you hate your job, are unhappy with the person you’ve become, dissatisfied with where you’ve ended up and long for change? Are you still “making a living”? And what does that mean, “living”? Isn’t it more like “surviving”?

Two words, meaning similar things, but with big differences.

“Survival” is when our basic needs for food and shelter are met and we have some sense of security. It’s the bare minimum required for a human being to exist. There is no thought beyond the moment you are going through right now, since the tasks associated with keeping yourself and your family fed and sheltered dominate your energy. They are so immediate that there is no room for anything else.

In survival mode, people stop listening to their hearts and the dreams that are carried there. Life becomes too busy, too full of necessaries until it is empty of everything else.

“Living” is what happens when we make time, even among the demands of basic needs, for hope, for grace, for things beyond the next meal. We truly live when we remember what our passion, our purpose in life is and pursue it, so that we get carried along on the universe’s stream, always moving closer to our dream.

In survival, there is just enough to make it through the day. In living, we have abundance, the faith that we have more than enough to see through to tomorrow and beyond.

All of us do both—survive and live. We all want to live, but it’s often very difficult to shift our outlook if we are surrounded on all sides by examples of survival and are constantly being given the message that dreaming is for kids and we’d better grow up and face reality and just do our job and stay in our places.

And yet, some of the happiest people are the poorest. Their physical circumstances are certainly challenging, but they don’t see them as a final destination. They are the ones who fiercely hold on to the belief that education will allow their children to rise above where they’re currently stationed in life. All they ask is for the chance to try.

In this light, simply surviving is no way to live.

Potent Words: Pity Versus Compassion

November 7, 2008

Language is powerful. It is the trait that sets us apart from other animals, although there are other species who you could say have some form of “language” (dolphins and whales, for instance). The distinction between those other species and us, though, is that we humans seem to have countless ways of expressing abstract concepts, and often, gradations within those concepts.

It’s been widely portrayed that the native peoples of Alaska have hundreds of words for snow. Actually, they have varying forms of similar linguistic bases that describe different snow-and-ice characteristics, something like our “slush,” “sleet,” “snow”.

Language is a potent communicator between people, but it’s just as powerful within the mind of an individual. We talk to ourselves constantly, from the moment we awaken each morning to the moment we fall asleep at the end of the day—even after that, if you count dreams, and I do.

We can never leave our inner voice, and the messages it conveys to us do more to shape our lives than any other influence.

The words we use, whether we’re thinking to ourselves or speaking out loud, carry layers of context. A single word brings with it a whole set of underlying perceptions, often dictated by the particular culture and community we are part of.

All this is simply a foundation for the point of these next few posts, namely, that words we often think of as having the same or very similar meanings, that we use interchangeably, are really vastly different when considered from the perspective of their underlying contextual layers. These layers are frequently based on emotional reactions, and whether we realize it or not, the word we use in a particular situation can deeply color how we respond to others in that situation.

This series is certainly not complete, but I’ve tried to focus on a few instances that I feel are particularly important, especially in light of healing.

That’s why I begin the discussion with “compassion” versus “pity”.

When we are confronted with circumstances in our own lives or the lives of others that highlight the challenges we all face as human beings, particularly in responding to pain (emotional, physical, etc.), we are given the choice to engage in many ways, depending on how we relate to those circumstances. Often, these circumstances produce a deep resonance within us. We can relate to having similar experiences, or we simply see the need for some sort of response from us.

In these instances, people often talk about feeling compassion or pity. The words are often used without regard to what each implies, simply to denote a desire to have a helpful or comforting interaction with the person involved in the situation. For example, someone’s house burns down, and we might say, “What a pity,” or comment that a particular gesture was “compassionate”.

Or, in another example, if you happen to meet someone who can’t see, can’t walk well, or has great difficulty speaking clearly enough to make themselves understood, you’re faced with an illustration of someone who is trying to go through life without the benefit of a trait (seeing, walking, speaking) that you usually take for granted.

Compassion and pity are, I believe, on opposite ends of a spectrum of responses to these types of situations. I think that, if you look at the word itself, how it’s spelled, it’s easy to keep the two straight.

“Pity” is an emotional response based on fear and misunderstanding. We “look down into a pit” and see someone in a condition very different from ourselves. From our vantage point far above them, we can enumerate all the things that separate “us” from “them”. We work to keep “them” at arm’s length, throwing things into the proverbial pit that we think will alleviate the misery down there, but not considering how we might help the person get out. We focus so much on the current condition they’re in that we don’t look at the potential of where they might be. We become so consumed by fear (“Oh, what if that were me—thank God that’s not me—I couldn’t imagine living like that!” that it restricts our response to actions that will preserve our position of power. We think that, if we can maintain that “higher ground,” we’ll somehow insulate ourselves from the possibility of future challenges for ourselves.

“Compassion,” by contrast, is “coming alongside another human being”. The “passion” at the end of the word implies that, somehow, the heart has to be deeply engaged. From this perspective, we see someone eye to eye, even when that’s uncomfortable for us. We don’t let ourselves get bogged down or overwhelmed by the other’s circumstances, but we don’t shy away from “getting our hands dirty” in order to help them help themselves. We relate to and interact with them on the basis of our shared humanity, always working to preserve their dignity and maintaining a respect for them. This respect and love for a fellow human being are the roots of compassion.

In a healing situation, the pity response is when we simply give pills or patches for pain management, increasing the dosage as the pain gets worse, without any deeper consideration of the other, non-physical components of pain as well as the non-clinical aspects of drugs (i.e., how they affect the mind and how those effects feed into a person’s self-concept and interactions with the world). Pity says, “It’s not my problem” once the meds have been given, and caps off any change in prescription with, “There, that should take care of it”.

The compassionate response involves actually listening to someone talk about pain, even if they’ve already gotten a pill for it. Why isn’t the pill working as well as it’s supposed to? How does the patch make them feel on an emotional level, and does the person believe they have adequate opportunities for dealing with these emotional and psychological parts of their treatment? Are there other, non-pharmaceutical, alternatives that could be tried? Is the person receptive to those? Am I, as a healer, open to the fact that I may not be the one who can best provide help to a particular person, and if not, how do I respond to that?

Compassion is a process, not a single action. It’s a series of questions that engages two people in response to a situation, not a desire to simply have all the answers so you can tie up all the loose ends and move on to the next project. Pity is easy and doesn’t require self-examination or thought, but compassion challenges us to discover what we think and then often further encourages us to expand our perspective to include ideas we never would have considered before.

When we “have pity on” another person, we rob them of their essential humanity. Putting anything “on” someone else implies that we are the ones in control. “Having compassion for” someone is completely different. It preserves the common ground between us and them. To me at least, “for” is more active, more interactive, than “on” when other people are involved. You, as the person responding in compassion, must decide how involved “for” is going to be, and you also must accept that the other person’s response to “for them” might not be what you expect.

One of the most wonderful consequences of a compassionate response is the opportunity it provides for us to see others grow. I have seen this over and over in my own experiences. Once, I was working with someone who was in severe pain, facing death sooner than planned. Fear, hopelessness, anger, mistrust and loneliness were all making things even more unbearable. The individual wasn’t sure if reiki would help, didn’t put much faith in “weird” stuff like that, and didn’t even know if they wanted to have to interact with yet another person.

Sometimes, the best sessions occur when we simply let things take their own natural course. I spent a majority of the time I had with this client talking—no, let me change that, it was mostly listening, seeing where the conversation was headed, and asking a question that would keep it moving. Anyone who was observing, thinking about reiki in the “traditional” sense would have thought I’d just wasted over an hour and called something a session that was no such thing.

When this client did, in fact, die, the comments I received from those close to them at the end and who had seen the session all focused on a few things—disappearance of pain that had been unresponsive to any other treatment, laughter, and peace.

When I’m coming to the end of my own journey here on earth, I hope there is someone who won’t just pity me and hand me a pill and say, “Call me in the morning”. I’ve got to get through the night, and so do those around me!

No, I want a compassionate response, someone who isn’t afraid of my crying, who will talk about anything or nothing, even laugh, as I make my peace and take my leave.